July 1, 2023
As part of my faith deconstruction journey, I’ve had many life-changing realizations. The hardest of those has been a clearer understanding of how my conservative Evangelical Christian upbringing shaped my self-image in a profoundly negative way.
I was taught I was infected with original sin. I was riddled with it like a terminal cancer invading every cell of my body. I was rewarded for exhibiting “humility”, which meant submitting to the fact there was no goodness inherent within me, not one speck. So, when I did good things, it was only by virtue of the goodness God had placed within me; it was never by my own choice, so I could never take responsibility. I could never take pride in my goodness.
And yet, it was an incredibly mixed message. Even though all the goodness within me was from God, and I could therefore take no credit, I was the author and perpetrator of all the bad things within me. I was forced to take full responsibility for my sins. There was no consideration of context, of the ways in which I had been sinned against, of situational or environmental forces. All the Good was God, all the Bad was Me. Those messages set me up for a lifetime of decision making rooted in fear. Fear of what? Fear of hell.
The message was never, “You’re a good girl”. It was always, “Jesus is always watching. He is happy when you are a good girl. You must always do what Jesus tells you.”
Jesus is a good guy, I figured he was anyhow. He was up there sitting next to God, after all. That made him a pretty powerful guy, too. Someone you did not want to piss off. But He had a temper! He overturned the tables at church! Just like my father threw furniture across the room when he was angry. And Jesus saw everything I did! Scary stuff. Who wouldn’t want to do what made Jesus happy? Eternal life depended on it!
There’s no winning in that kind of shame-based upbringing. It set the stage for self-hate and a series of damaging life choices. It’s taken me now 60 years to even begin in earnest undoing that serious serious mindfuck. Not that I haven’t chipped away at it my entire life.
Even as a child receiving those messages, I’d think, “That’s not fair!” We all know life isn’t fair, it’s one of the things we learn very very early in life. But there’s “That’s not fair!” and then there’s “THAT’S NOT FAIR NOT AT ALL NOT ONE BIT I’M BEING HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR THINGS BEYOND MY CONTROL!” And that’s super-fucking NOT FAIR.
I’ve so much anger, still and yet. When I think about my childhood, and the messages I received from my family well into adulthood (still receive from my mother), I put up a grey wall. All I see is darkness, a cloak pulled over my pain by Me to protect Me. I don’t want to revisit the details of those memories, it’s eviscerating. I’d rather just put up a grey wall, look at my childhood as evil and devoid of any good thing, and wipe out any feelings of compassion for those who raised me. My father abused me, my mother covered it up. And all the rest of the family were complicit. Who abused me most?
In learning about spiritual abuse, victims say the lack of support from community when they reported the abuse was far more damaging than the abuse itself. So then, perhaps, my mother is the prime abuser. Your mother is supposed to be the source, the giver of life, the ultimate protector. She was, in fact, my ultimate abuser. I love her more than anyone else on earth, always have, always will. I also hate her more than anyone else on earth. Always have, always will.
In spite of my upbringing, my spirit has always known better, known truth. As a child, in the moments in between, I fell into myself, into my mind, and I celebrated the goodness in me. I read, that was my escape. Books taught me there was a different way to look at myself and at the world. A better way, a more constructive way. I had options; I had agency. Those truths were hidden in my heart, carefully guarded secrets.
Eventually, I tired of turning the pain inward. I was incredibly angry. Furious. Full of hate. As a teen, it all came out. All of it. And, sadly, it made everything worse. The abuse escalated. Everything intensified. My family no longer saw any goodness in me. I was all bad, across the board, doomed, destined for hell, my immortal soul completely lost, without hope of redemption. And then the shunning began.
But you see, there’s never been a complete shunning. Why? Because I’m the single daughter. I have a purpose, I’m useful, I’m needed. I’m the one who needs to care for mom. He has a career, I no longer do. I’m the only one who can. It's on me, my God ordained responsibility. And it’s in my best interest to do so. It’s a win-win, my brother assures me. He can see only that I am undeserving, unworthy, and mom is somehow saving me from having to live the wretched life resulting from my sinful choices. That’s how he can rationalize his treatment of me. And part of me buys into that on some level, because I chose this life, and I choose to stay. But I'd like to think I chose this life for other reasons, not as atonement for my sins, but because it's the right thing to do -- for me to do, anyway. And there is far more truth to that than how my brother views it.
I fall into self-pity and I hate that about me. I must shift away from a victim mindset, which I abhor, which I fight with all my being. I don’t want to live like that, with that kind of bitterness living inside of me, riddling me like cancer, stealing any semblance of joy. So, I fight bitterness and anger and hate. I fight it like my life depends on it. Because my quality of life does depend on it.
But fighting feelings doesn’t make them go away. Sometimes the negative emotions swell up and overtake me, dictate my behaviors. The result is shame and regret. Just as bad as bitterness and anger and hate. I am aware of that dynamic more of the time now, and am successfully able to ward off reactive behaviors more and more often. But mom and I still have "fuck you" fights. Mother's and daughters are expert at striking at one another's most vulnerable places.
I haven’t found the magic way to free myself from negative emotions. Actually, that’s not true. I have found the magic way: Time. But I didn’t find Time, Time found me.
I’m walking it out, in time, and things are getting better. Small, tiny, nearly imperceptible improvements. But in the lookback, I’ve come so far.
I know now, beyond a doubt, I needn't be afraid, I needn't act from a place of fear.
There is no hell.
I Persevere. And life goes on.